Fairness and Influence in College Admissions

Sharing is caring, right? From an early age we teach children about the importance of treating their friends in ways they want to be treated in return. As they grow older we continue to tell them over and over that all people have the same rights and the same chances to reach their dreams.

As a result, fairness becomes a huge issue for kids. My eight year old says, “But that’s not fair,” approximately 2,374 times each day. At least 2,373 times a day I reply, “Well, life is unfair.”

And so it begins.

This childlike belief in fairness results in one of the most central misconceptions about the admissions process: the widespread assumption that the process is fair, unbiased, and equitable.

Yeah. Right.

For those of you not paying attention or too preoccupied with the latest Paris Hilton scandal, universities are under heavy scrutiny on the fairness issue. It all began last year when a flagship Midwestern university had emails printed in the press revealing blatant influence by politicians in efforts to get unqualified students admitted.

Pardon me while I fail to be shocked by this.

While the particular incident last year was really blatant, politicians (who often control our budgets) advocating for constituents seeking admission to institutions is nothing new. It’s just one small example of the overall unfairness of the admissions process, which (let’s be honest) pretty much reflects the condition of our society.

Shameless Plug: Speaking of political influence, Mason students plan to be among the most politically influential in the country; at least according to Princeton Review and Huffington Post, both of which named Mason among the most top ten most politically active campuses in the country.

Nonetheless, unfairness in admissions is usually less about politics than it is about money. Fair or not, many students get access to better schools and/or grow up in environments where getting a college degree is assumed from birth. Test preparation programs, some argue, tilt the balance to those who can afford them. Tutoring and help with essays are also within reach of the affluent, along with hundreds of other boosts students can get if they can afford them. Let’s face it – it’s just plain better to be rich than poor.

Furthermore, apart from better preparation and guidance opportunities, there are many other seemingly “unfair” considerations that may work for or against students in the process. Admissions officers balance the interests of the institution and its constituents against fairness to applicants. This gets particularly difficult at schools like Mason that are picking from among very highly qualified applicants. A colleague from a similar school once told me, “we could have enrolled the next group of applicants instead, and the profile of the class would have been just as likely to academically succeed.” At that level of competition, influence has greater potential to sneak into the process.

That being said, I believe that Admissions officers, in most cases, do their best in good faith to instill as much fairness into the process as possible. Admissions, however, is focused as much on meeting the goals of a college or university as it is about serving its applicants. The faculty, alumni, and current students all have to be considered. Isn’t it logical for children of alumni and faculty (who are in turn more likely to be long term supporters of the school) to be given advantages in the process? Using the same line of thought, how should admissions consider children, friends, or employees of its major donors?

So no matter what you learned as a toddler, I’m here to tell you that life is often unfair (and, in other news, two plus two still equals four). There are, however, right and wrong ways that this fairness gets applied. Good news: you really don’t need to worry about this – there are PLENTY of great schools that are very likely to admit you even without special influence or connections. More on that when I have time, after I return a call from…well, never mind who.

Be seeing you.

Piranha 3-D and Admissions Myths

I get easily frustrated with people who force complex interpretations of everything. This is particularly true at certain universities where professors appear to worship complexity. As much as I appreciate a really substantive cerebral experience, I also realize that Piranha-3D doesn’t have an elaborate subtext to illustrate the perils of the socio-industrial complex’s influence on the global environment. It’s about a bunch of really mean fish that eat, purely for audience entertainment purposes, really attractive people.

One of the reasons I started writing about admissions (the other, of course, is the chance to brag about Mason) is that at times it seems everyone who writes on the topic has an attitude consistent with those colleges that seem to pride themselves on their disconnect from the “real world”. So-called admissions experts appear determined to make the topic seem complex, defying understanding by anyone without decades of experience in the field. This leads to the obvious conclusion that an applicant needs enormous expertise to have any chance of success.

I disagree.

Shameless Plug: Unlike most institutions, Mason is especially well known for our real world connections, in fact our professors are in the news all the time. If you don’t believe me, Google it. In case you’re too busy to Google, you can just check out one of our most often quoted faculty members interviewed on the Scholastic website about ways teachers can help develop curiosity in students, or follow my Twitter account for regular updates.

Those efforts to make obscure the relatively simple led to the Great Myths of College Admissions
• Admissions is fair
• Admissions is predictable
• Admissions is complicated

In reality, admissions decisions often give unfair advantages, are unpredictable to the point of often appearing random, yet are based on a system that is simple to the point of absurdity.

The biggest myth of all, however, is that there is a SECRET to admissions. People believe there is some special trick, gimmick, or schtick which, if only they had knowledge of it, would all but guarantee admission to some particular college or university.


These bogus stunts often include some special essay topic or some special club you can join – or worst of all- some company that charges a fortune for claims of inside advantages. There’s never any evidence that any of that works, other than that story about somebody who got in at some point by writing that essay, joining that club, or forking over that fortune.

The reality, unfortunately, is really boring. Here it is (you might want to sit down for this):

It’s (nearly, mostly, almost completely) all about your grades.

Better grades are the BEST way to increase your chances of admission. That’s really about it…except that when I say “grades” I really mean your whole academic record: the high school you attend, the quality/rigor of your courses, the trends of your grades up or down (up, of course, if better), and the comparison of you to other students and applicants from your school. All of that is factored, to one degree or another, by admissions officers to get an idea of what kind of student you are, and likely will be in college. That simple, clear-cut, transparent evaluation accounts for the VAST majority of your admission decision.

I’ll get into more detail about how all of those issues factor into academic records in the admission process in some future posts, but in the meantime here is a really simple piece of advice that is sure to help you in any admission process: get good grades. Also, when you go swimming, watch out of the piranha. Especially if you’re particularly attractive.

Be seeing you.

Admissions deadlines, reckless drivers, and fire ants

The New York Times recently posted an article about high school students anxiously waiting by their computers for the “Common Application” to go live so that they could IMMEDIATELY submit their applications and be THE FIRST to be received by their university of choice.


I’m sure that these are probably the same people who gun their engines on the highway to get in front of me and then immediately slow to a snail’s pace afterwards. In my perfect world everyone would have a special apparatus that gives drivers the ability to launch a platoon of fire ants directly into the car of such individuals. No. Wait. First you would shoot honey at them, then the ants. And I digress, but I think you get the idea.

So I started thinking, maybe the people who send in their applications in the middle of summer have the same idea (about getting in front, not, I assume, about fire ants). Possibly they imagine their applications mercilessly cutting right in front of other applicants. Perhaps they picture the application entering into the admissions office with appropriate fanfare: trumpets heralding the arrival of the first application as choirs sing their praises and skyrockets explode triumphantly overhead.

Or not.

In reality, few offices actually check the dates on the applications; that is as long as it meets the deadline. Applying by early admission and (the evil, awful) early decision deadlines may give some advantages in the decision process, but it’s unlikely that being much earlier has any influence.

There are, perhaps, some admissions officers and/or committees that carefully check the arrival date of each application, but that date is usually an overall COMPLETION date (the date when everything needed for your application is received). In fact, many high schools will send transcripts out in batches, often well after these obsessive summer submitters post their applications. As a result, there’s a good chance that the admissions committee will have no idea who submitted the first application.

The moral of the story is that you can take all the time you want to turn in your applications. Until, that is, the deadline for the college or university of your choice– then you’d better hurry up and get your application submitted.

Shameless plug: in the unlikely event you don’t believe me, and desperately need to get your application to Mason in RIGHT NOW (since we’re surely your school of choice), the application is fully available, including our first of its kind option to submit video essays through YouTube with your application!

So relax…go back to squeezing the last juice out of your summer while you obsessively visit colleges, explore college web sites, stress out about your senior year, and recklessly pull in front of traffic and then slow down…we’ll have your fire ants waiting.

Be seeing you.

Tattoos, vacations, and high school quality

I made it back safely from my “vacay” in Wildwood, NJ where I narrowly resisted the urge to join the crowd and get a tattoo. Sadly, my wife vetoed the massive Mason logo I planned to go across my back.

Before I left last week, I spoke at Mason’s Washington Youth Summit on the Environment and gave my incredibly entertaining rant that gives the inside scoop on college admissions. Once again, I got the usual question: “how does my high school influence the admission process?”

This age-old question is normally prefaced by some of the following excuses:
• “My school is so huge, and so incredibly good, and it’s nearly impossible to rank in the top because everyone is above average.”
• “My school has a tough grading policy, so that makes me look worse than kids in easier schools.”
• “My school is lousy. I have bad teachers, awful facilities, and no challenging courses. I can’t get a challenging course load, and had rotten preparation for high school. Few students even graduate, so just getting through my school is harder than getting perfect grades at schools with more support.”
• “I know university ‘X’ hates my school and/or loves other schools way more.”
• “My school is so small, just being ranked number 2 in the class keeps me out of the top 10 percent; in fact, I have to duck just to get through the tiny, wee doors…”

Remember all those times nice teachers told you there are no stupid questions? They were wrong. Even with all the explanations above, the question remains fairly idiotic because…
• Admissions officers know schools pretty well, and even if we don’t know your school (we probably do), we get a profile that explains the context of your school. Admissions officers understand how to balance the impact of different schools – largely by looking to see if you challenged yourself given what was offered and are competitive in the wider context of the admissions pool as a result.
• …and even if we didn’t balance different schools, you’d never know its significance– we might like bigger schools, smaller schools, or even average-sized schools that happen to have great curling teams.
• …and even if we didn’t balance schools, and you knew its significance, admissions officers wouldn’t be any more consistent with evaluating you in the context of your school’s status than they are with any other admissions factors. Therefore, it would always differ from year to year and from reader to reader.
• …and even if we didn’t balance schools, and you knew its significance, and we were 100% consistent, you still wouldn’t know how your school was viewed by any particular admissions officer and how that affected you in the long-run.

DISCLAIMER: There is one exception: if everyone from your high school applies to the same college or university, that institution will often be tougher on admissions. Not fair, but that’s the reality.

And the biggest reason that this is PRETTY MUCH A NUTTY QUESTION (drum roll, please…) you probably can’t do anything about it!!!! Are you really going to move schools on that chance that you could possibly get into some specific college or university? Of course not. How about just stay in your school, do the best you can, and remember that you don’t need to settle on just one college or university. If some institution doesn’t want you because of your school (however unlikely that is) you’ll find plenty more that DO – and there are probably WAY better things to stress over…like how much it will cost to have a large Mason tattoo removed…
Be seeing you.

How to live your life – what you want versus what we might

I’m at the Washington Journalism and Media Conference blogging on my new iPad. Last night I did my usual speech on college admissions, and even after giving it for 20 years, I’m still amazed at the insane factors high school students consider in the admissions process. A few examples:

How will college consider the quality or ranking of my high school?
Why would anyone care? Apart from the reality that it probably makes next to no difference at all, are you really going to consider changing schools? If not, how does knowing help you at all? It doesn’t– It only adds unnecessary stress.

What classes should I take to increase my chances of admission?
I have a longer post somewhere about AP/IB/dual enrolment, but this question always makes me really sad. Unless you are doing something entirely nutty, like substituting study hall for AP physics, and assuming your course load is reasonably competitive, you have no way to know how your course choices will impact your admission. What you DO know is that some courses interest you more than others and that challenging yourself is important. Isn’t that enough to guide your choices?

I know this sounds naïve, but students and families give us WAY too much power over their life decisions. There are over 4,000 colleges and universities, and there are probably dozens that could be wonderful for you. Out of those, many will admit you simply FOR DOING THE THINGS THAT ARE BEST FOR YOU. Read: That’s what’s best for you, not for admission.

Shameless plug: clearly what the best for many of you was attending the WJMC. If you are a great student and interested in the environment, check out the Washington Youth Summit on the Environment starting in 9 days.

Be seeing you.

Will hyper-involvement help you get admitted (and would that be worth your time)?

I have a house less than a mile from Mason’s campus.  This is a huge advantage as my commute is whopping five minutes.  This has obvious benefits, among which is residing in the Washington, D.C. suburbs.  This is particularly interesting as a parent – the unofficial motto of the region was taken from The Prairie Home Companion: “All of our children are above average.”

This was made most clear to me when we stuck my kid in storage (also known as day care) at the advanced age of four months.  My wife and I soon after attended a gathering of parents whose children were stored (I mean nurtured and educated, of course) at the same place.  I found a group of parents with kids in the same age range, 3-6 months old, engaged in a VERY SERIOUS conversation about what languages their kids were studying.

Not how many they spoke at home.  How many they were studying. Three to six months old.  Really?

With my typical sarcasm, I responded that our son had recently learned to blow raspberries quite successfully.  The parents in the group managed, at best, a weak response to my clearly superior sense of humor, and asked whether, if our son was not enrolled in language lessons, he was too busy with other classes, like gymnastics or swimming.

Did I mention he was four months old?  I told them we hadn’t made it to swimming lessons but that we did manage to bathe him…occasionally.

At this point, I believe, several of the parents immediately called protective services.  We’ve wised up since then.  Our eight year old now plays soccer and basketball, takes guitar and piano lessons, and speaks fluent Yiddish (and by fluent, I mean that he knows a handful of wildly inappropriate phrases. I, of course, have no idea where he might have learned them).

The reason I’m blathering about all this in what is (arguably) a blog about admissions:

1)   This local obsession with toddler involvement continues throughout the country into high school, where students are over-involved, over-scheduled and just plain overwhelmed. 
2)   Parents and “experts” complain that students have no time to be kids, as they are busy scheduling high school internships in between band right after soccer practice while they volunteer at homeless shelters.
3)   All of that hyper-programming is often blamed on the admissions process.

I wonder whether there’s really a problem.  Did the pioneers stop their kids from working in the fields after school so they could “have time to be kids”?  If given more time, will teens use the freedom to rest or expand their minds with great literature and art – or will they just sit around updating their statuses and gawking at YouTube videos?

On the other hand, scheduling every minute of your life in order to get into college is nutty:

  • Extracurricular activity isn’t nearly, remotely, or in any way as important as your academic records;
  • You never know what admissions officers are looking for anyhow – especially if they’d prefer to have a student deeply involved in one thing compared to the applicant involved, in one way or another, in every club and activity available;
  • And most importantly, it’s a dumb way to live you life.  If you’re doing all that stuff because you love it, have a passion for it, and/or can’t bear to live without it, fine by me.  Trying to join every single activity that MIGHT give you some miniscule assistance in some mythical admissions process, however, is deeply misguided. 

Shameless Plug: Speaking of over-involvement, my team is busy getting everything finalized for Mason’s incredible Washington Journalism and Media Conference next week. Over 150 students from across the country competed to be recognized as THE future leaders in journalism and media, and to come to D.C. to meet with some of today’s best know experts in the field.

Since you can’t know what we want (or don’t want), you can feel free to make choices based on what actually interests you, as opposed to what MIGHT interest us (the admissions office).  Isn’t that better?  Be seeing you.

Cheating Harvard and Lying on Your Application

Once upon a time, an illustrious student applied to Harvard claiming to be from one of the best prep schools and one of the best colleges in the country with amazing scores and great grades.  He lied.

While this has been widely reported in the media, most of the reports have been very easy on Harvard’s admission office.  One of the experts in the field went so far as to say that, given the thousands of applications schools receive, documents just can’t be verified.

Poor Harvard.  So many applications, so little time.

One the one hand, that’s just plain silly.  This guy faked transcripts.  Maybe I can see, given the right computers and blah blah, slipping that document past someone.  If, however, a school has at least a couple of nickels to rub together (and who has more nickels than Harvard?!), perhaps they could invest in a nice document imaging system.  Nearly every reputable college in the country (and the applicant was claiming to have attended MIT) uses really fancy transcript paper that shows all kinds of stuff when you scan the document.  This makes copying or scanning the document challenging – and lets us know it’s a real document.  Did the student go so far as to obtain that paper?  If not, how the heck did he get it past the office?

Let’s, however, give poor over-worked Harvard (cue violins) the benefit of the doubt on the transcripts.  They also accepted the applicant’s fraudulent SAT scores.  I can’t speak for every institution, but Mason downloads scores directly from CollegeBoard.  We go back and verify with CB data most that come in from the high school or the student directly. 

On the other hand, since the student was transferring, maybe the Harvard admissions office wasn’t that worried about his scores (which makes sense), and since those scores were REALLY GOOD (and whose wouldn’t be, if we were picking them ourselves), why check further?  Fine – I’ll consider letting Harvard off the hook.

Let’s move on to how this exposes the DIRTY SECRET OF COLLEGE ADMISSIONS. 

 Wait for it.

 Applicants lie. 

 The even dirtier secret is – admissions offices probably don’t catch most of those liars.  Applicants submit all kinds of recommendation letters, lists of extra-curriculars, and claims of awards and achievements.  For the most part, colleges make no effort to verify the authenticity of these submissions.  There are rare exceptions.  With the internet so readily accessible, an applicant claiming to have appeared on “Big Brother” and “America’s Got Talent” is easily referenced.  The applicant, however, falsely claiming to have won the “East Podunk Service Commitment to Youth that are Far Less Lucky Award” is unlikely to get caught.

In fairness, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, these factors are FAR less important to admission decisions than academic records (and, the recent Harvard debacle aside, false academic records are much harder to slip past our processes).  I should also note, for all those tempted by the knowledge of admissions offices lax verification, that the penalty for getting caught is generally steep.  Most admissions offices, if they believe that any – ANY – part of the application has been falsified, will deny the applicant.  You won’t get a reason – just the denial. 

 So we’re not that good at catching you, but we have a REALLY strong disincentive.  How many of you think that works?  Be seeing you.